Tips and Tools #14: Building an Organization: Where Does the Organizing Committee Meet?

From Columbus Free Press

The devil is in the details. This is especially true in organizing!

One question that I’m asked over and over when discussing how to construct an organizing drive and building the organizing committee is surprising, but important. Where should the committee meet?  The answer is always: at one of the committee member’s house.

Certainly, when planning for the first big meeting or launch meeting for the organization, the local community center, if there is one, or a local religious institution, if it is not divisive, or union hall, if you are lucky enough to still have unions where you are organizing, or some public facility, are all in your sight line and on your list, but none of these work for the initial organizing committee meetings. Part of the process of embedding the organization in the members’ hands as well as embedding the members into the organization is creating the reality of our claim of local ownership and control. None of that is possible in any institutional setting, no matter how friendly or centrally located. The committee members are neighbors or co-workers, side by side, and nothing says, “community,” like meeting in another member’s home.

Is this an easy ask? No, it isn’t.

Everyone will demure when asked. They have children. The house isn’t big enough. The house isn’t clean enough. There are dogs or cats. There aren’t enough chairs. The organizer must press through these objections, either arguing that they don’t matter, because they really don’t, or solving the issue directly, like bringing in more chairs if necessary. The value in creating trust, understanding, and comradery between committee members, trumps all reservations. None of this is possible in a more public space that is outside of the control or comfort zone of committee members.

At the end of the discussion, the host is going to be proud that the organization began in their home. Other members of the committee are going to be asked and will agree to hold the meeting in their homes as well, but it has to start in someone’s home to establish that pattern.

Besides taking another step towards full ownership and control of the fledgling organization, being in someone’s home has other advantages in organization building as well. Everyone will be on their best behavior in a home setting. The potential for conflict will be measurably reduced on any topic that might rise from taking assignments in the organizing drive or arguing about the issues for the first campaign.

This is also true for workplace organizing. No matter how many times the local McDonalds or the backroom of a bar is suggested, having the meeting in one of the worker’s homes gives you much better prospects of success. Paranoia that is part and parcel of public spaces in worker organizing is reduced when the meeting is privately organized in one of the organizing committee member’s homes as well.

Certainly, it is not easy to make this happen, but it is worth it, if your objective is building a strong local organization. Try it. You’ll like the results!

 

Tips and Tools #13: Building an Organization? How to Identify and Recruit Organizing Committee Members

Printed in Columbia Free Press by Wade Rathke

If an organizing committee is at the heart of building a community organization, how do you find the people who will join that committee? This definitely is not simply “add water and stir!”

Assuming we have already identified and defined the community, for an organizing committee to be effective, it will have to be representative of that community. All of the community!

If the community is geographical, that means ideally that the organizing committee will include active members from all points of the compass. Furthermore, the committee will also have to reflect the diversity of the community, racially and ethnically for sure, but also in terms of gender and possibly religion.

I say, ideally, because that is the task. That is not to say that failing to check every box means the organization cannot be built or be successful, but it is a critical part of the task because the beginnings do prejudice the ends. A dominant group that is unrepresented on the organizing committee will quickly determine that the organization is “not for them,” no matter what the leaders or organizers might say to the contrary. Prospective members will be looking for people in the back rows and at the front table who walk their walk and talk their talk to decide if the organization is really “theirs.”

We all know this is the reality, no matter what our rap or ideology might be. If there is a significant percentage of the community that is African-American yet only a few African-Americans are on the organizing committee, that will be reflected in the membership. And, vice versa, if whites or Hispanics or others are significant but not represented.

Why? Because the organizing committee members are the visible workhorses of the organizing drive until the launching of the organization in a formal meeting, and they are the invisible force of the organizing effort until leaders are democratically elected. They are the people one sees on the doors, giving the rap, and issuing the invitations to the meeting. They are the ones at the meetings with other community institutions encouraging them to participate or gaining a promise that they will be neutral and “wait and see” at the worse.

So, how do you find them?

You talk to “gatekeepers” in community centers, churches, union halls, recreation centers, social clubs, and local gathering spots. These people are not your potential organizing committee members usually, because they already see themselves, rightly or wrongly, as the community if they are community leaders, and they are often living outside the community as well. Any name you hear more than twice, you want to track down in order to measure whether or not they would be willing to join the OC and put in the work. When you find them, you want them to lead you to others.

What if you end up unbalanced in this early effort? Let’s say you have some people who seem ready to go, but the likely committee is not going to be balanced in the way required to build a powerful organization. A section of the map is blank. A major group is unrepresented. Time to grab someone and hit the doors cold in those areas and among those groups to prospect for the additional committee members you need.  Do the work. Ask for help. You will find them if you are persistent. Incidentally, building and balancing the organizing committee in this way is as important in a workplace as it is in a community, if that’s you organizing task.

A frequent question is whether or not existing self- or externally-defined so-called community leaders are likely assets for an organizing committee in a newly forming community organization? Usually not. Often community leaders have the history and may be seen outside the community as having the base, but don’t have it anymore. Furthermore, they often look backward at what they know and where they’ve been, rather than forward at what they need to know now and where they need to go. Absolutely, some are great, but getting fresh legs and faces on the doors is a surer step forward.

Once again, the organizing committee, not the organizer, will be the face and voice of the emerging organization, so a new voice is heard more clearly if it can break through the sound and fury of the past. Whatever problems you are unable to solve in the constructing the organizing committee, you will have to solve during the organizing drive, so this stage is worth the time and effort to try to do it right.

Tips and Tools #9: Building an Organization? Try Repurposing People – Part II

From Columbus Free Press

Mass organizations need people who will fill the role of organizers.  Interns, students, and other volunteers are essential along with government paid or subsidized work available through some federal and state programs.  In the next order of difficulty though there are invaluable resources for some organizations if you are able to access or repurpose staff through national service programs.

In the United States this largely means divisions currently placed under the Corporation for National and Community Service like the AmeriCorps VISTA program.   I know what you’re thinking.  These are aimless young people looking for some experience somewhere or trying to pass their time as a placeholder while sorting out their futures after some college experience.  They aren’t “real police,” ready to the do the work of building an organization, but more likely people trying to do a little good without much sweat while they keep their eyes on their own future.  True enough, but there is another way of looking at these people and their potential to build your organization.

First, some organizations are able to apply for VISTA slots.  When successful, there are both opportunities to try to recruit people you would want on your staff to fill these slots by applying and having your recruits accepted.  If approved as a placement sponsor, your organization can also accept placements sent to you, and then deploy them as needed.  Recently, I spent time in the office of the well-regarded and established advocacy organization the Philadelphia Unemployment Project (PUP) and met a number of their AmeriCorps volunteers who were engaged in advocacy and organizing projects for lower income workers and the unemployed.  The volunteers were integrated into the service components of the organization extending the work of the organizing staff.

Secondly, you may find that there are idealistic individuals who have joined VISTA hoping to make a difference or to learn real organizing skills, but are disappointed to find that they are hopelessly lost in Band-Aid programs providing service without any prospects of social change.  Creative and determined outreach by your organization may be able to locate and identify these misplaced, but already paid individuals and succeed in repurposing some or all of their time to build your organization.  A little-known part of the history of both ACORN in the 1970s and the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) before that involved such reallocation of VISTA workers and time.  In Arkansas in 1970 there were times when I was building ACORN that I was the only ill-paid staff member along with one other (Gary Delgado), while the additional half-dozen organizers were all VISTA volunteers hornswoggled away from their assigned programs to work with ACORN often with the compliant wink-and-nod of their supervisors.  During the first several years of the organization while our leaders were establishing the membership dues and other funding programs, we could not have survived without VISTAs!

None of these programs are cure-alls of course, but all can be part of the patchwork quilt of building a mass organization from something that is an idea in the community to a peoples’ organization with real power and force.  AmeriCorps volunteers are one and two-year wonders, so an organization cannot depend on them providing for your permanent organizing payroll.  The same can be said for Senior Corps as a way to get some of your 55 and older leaders into staff positions for critical positions and periods of time.  There are also restrictions that require an organization to be on their toes and keep their eyes peeled.  Such federally subsidized staff cannot be involved in politics obviously, but they also expose the organization to political attack as the winds of change rage.

In ACORN’s case we once lost 100 VISTA volunteers during the Carter Administration when several were accused of being involved in union activity for organizing domestic workers into an association in New Orleans demanding to be covered by the minimum wage.   The ACORN Housing Corporation also lost a bunch of AmeriCorps volunteers working in its housing counseling operations when then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich retaliated after an ACORN action in Washington disrupted his speech to the national association of county judges demanding that he not cut school lunch programs.  Gingrich in a rage struck back claiming that an AmeriCorps volunteer in the Washington DC AHC office had been present as a bystander at the action.  So ended the AHC AmeriCorps grant, but like so much in this work, it was all good while it lasted.  The action cost us one-million dollars, which is a reminder that accessing these kinds of programs cannot coopt the organization from its mission or separate its work from is memberships’ interests.

Don’t underestimate the degree of difficulty, but when the mission is to build a mass organization to create power to make change, miracles are never enough to get the job done and money, particularly to pay for organizers in the embryonic days of an organization, never grows on trees.  It takes aggressive pursuit and creativity, so where an organization can repurpose valuable staff who are already paid, there are huge benefits especially in the beginning.

In the next Tips and Tools, we will look in Part III at the next final prospect for accessing resources for staff through unemployment and direct benefit programs.

The Challenges of Organizing “Gig” Workers

When we think about organizing precarious “gig” workers, the task seems biblical.  The workers may be ready, or not, but the spirit and the flesh are weak. We all bemoan the rise of gig workers. Low pay, few hours, no benefits are some of them, worsened by the uncertainty of a position where you can only work to deliver something being demanded by consumers at a premium you are powerless to control. App companies misclassify workers as independent contractors rather than employees in order to pass on all of the maintenance and capital costs, aside from web work and marketing, to the workers, avoiding the personnel benefit and equipment costs that are routine and inescapable for regular employers. Worker conditions seem to cry out for a union, but unions have to be wary at answering the call no matter how loud.

A recent “strike” by Uber drivers in Los Angeles illustrates the problem. The company had triggered the strike by increasing its percentage of the fare, thereby decreasing drivers’ pay.  In response, the drivers turned off the Uber application on their phone.  Stated more plainly, they went on strike by simply didn’t respond to any calls or inducements to drive.

Did it work?  Who knows?  How would any of us, whether organizers, curious observers, or company officials, know how to measure the number of drivers protesting in this way versus those who just decided not to drive on any given day or got ticked off and responded to Lyft instead or whatever?  ACORN tried a similar approach in the early 1970s when we were fighting increases by the Arkla Gas Company in central Arkansas. Our “Turn Off Arkla Day!” action got a bit of press, as the Uber drivers did in Los Angeles. But in both cases, the company yawned since there was no way to measure whether the strike affected their cash flow at all.

Organizing gig workers can be challenging, but there’s some good work going on for bicycle deliver drivers in Europe, where companies like Uber Eats, Deliveroo, and others have become ubiquitous. Last fall one of ACORN’s affiliates organized a meeting in Brussels that brought together union activists interested in organizing European bicycle delivery drivers with fledgling groups of drivers from a dozen countries from the UK, Netherlands, Germany, and others. That meeting highlighted several active organizing projects:

  • Bike Workers Advocacy Project (BWAP), a new group seeking to organize cycling workers and, eventually, lead to some kind of unionization or union-style representation. Drivers at Postmates and Caviar in New York City and some bicycle shops seemed to be stirring the pot in 2018, but nothing seems to have emerged formally to date.
  • Bike delivery workers at Foodora and Dilveroo in Germany have raised issues about low wages and their independent contractor situation while advocating for a union.
  • In 2016, London gig workers for delivery services Deliveroo and Uber Eats organized protests and strikes for higher wages.  There was also an outcry in Philadelphia when a rider for Caviar was killed while working.
  • Legal action has managed to win back employment rights, such as a recent ruling in Spain that declared that a Deliveroo rider was in fact an employee and not an independent contractor, as the company claimed. Caviar is in mandatory arbitration in California on the same issue.  As importantly, riders in London struck for three days in 2018, and joined with striking McDonalds’s workers to demand higher wages, largely organized by a chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

While these examples seem promising, unions clearly lack any real commitment to organize these workers, and the workers have limited leverage. David Chu, who directs the European Organizing Center, a joint project between European unions and the US-based Change to Win federation, told me recently that he hears a lot of talk about organizing gig workers but sees little action in that direction, but perhaps the spirit – and many workers – are willing to organize, but the flesh-and-bones unions are not?

Serious organizing efforts in the United States have been contradictory and embryonic.  Uber in New York City and San Francisco reacted to organizing efforts by attempting to coopt the organizations into agreeing that the workers were not employees in exchange for consultation rights on rule changes and other issues like receiving tips.  More concerted efforts to create a mini-National Labor Relations Board representation mechanism were launched at the municipal level in Seattle, but the organizing effort is currently mired in litigation over preemption by the National Labor Relations Act and the question of employee status.

Local efforts reflect the way companies keep changing their practices, as Marielle Benchehboune, coordinator of ACORN’s affiliate, ReAct, noted recently in Forbes. “What will make the difference,” she suggested, is workers organizing “on the transnational scale.” Perhaps her analysis is correct.  Perhaps a rare global organizing plan could create enough pressure and leverage among these competing companies that could weld a workers’ movement together from the disparate pieces of independent worker mobilizations that are cropping up around the world.

Given the challenges, how much should we invest in organizing gig workers? Labor economists in the US caution that despite all of the hype from Silicon Valley and even some labor officials about the emerging gig economy, it involves a very small percentage of the workforce.  Others, like Louis Heyman in the recent book, Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream became Temporary, argue that gig workers are just the pimple on the elephant’s ass of contingent and temporary labor that has been hollowing out the American workforce for decades, just as consultants have chipped away at management jobs as well.

I heard something similar fifteen years ago, when I asked a leader of the Indian National Trade Union Congress if they were doing anything to organize call center workers in India. He answered that they estimated that there were 30,000 such workers, but there were 450 million workers in India at the time and hardly 9% were organized.  He then shrugged. That’s all he said, but we got the message.  There’s much to be done in organizing the unorganized, and resources and capacity are always restrained, whether in India or Europe or North America.

Is that a reason for not finding ways to organize workers who are attempting on their own to find justice on their jobs? Or is it just another rationale for doing little or nothing?  The one thing that seems clear is that if unions are going to be relevant to the modern workforce and the irregular and precarious forms of work that are being created by technology married to avarice, we must debate and address these challenges. It may be difficult, but unions and organizers need to devise practicable strategies that allow workers to organize, win, and build enough power to force companies to adapt and change.

I wish we had the answer now, because the workers seem ready, but one way or another, we need to figure this out quickly!

Wade Rathke, ACORN International

Columbus Free Press: Tips and Tools #7: Building an Organization? It’s Hard to Run an All-Volunteer Army!

By Wade Rathke in Columbus Free Press on March 6th, 2019

A mass organization can’t make it without members and volunteers doing a tremendous amount of work. There is no way that any level of dues collection or number of self-sufficiency schemes can ever substitute for all of the work needed to build large organizations. At the same, it’s almost impossible to be sustainable without some staff.

Recently, I was in Ireland for the first-time visiting tenant support and action groups in Dublin, Limerick, and Galway. Their work over the years had been amazing. The support groups had done great work in eviction defense. At different times the groups had been able to come together, particularly in Dublin, to rally thousands against government cutbacks or mass evictions in private and social housing with all the work done by volunteers and activists.

The problem was that it wasn’t sustainable. The mobilizations would ebb and flow, but would not yield permanent organization even though the issues and campaigns were often ongoing and interminable. Eventually, the numbers would fade and rather than building real power to protect and advance constituency interests, it would mean starting over and rebuilding to meet each new crisis, and often against even worse odds. Public bureaucracies can often dig in and outlast our surges, even when our cause is just. Corporate power, hedge funds, big banks and private equity, are currently entrenched and in ascension. It’s hard to beat the pros with a pickup squad.

So, we all agree that we need organization, but sometimes it takes some struggle for some organizations to understand that they also need staff, meaning real people whose final responsibility it is to help with the organizing, research, communication, and other tasks that smooth and sustain long term organization. The question asked over and over in Ireland and country after country, city after city, community after community, is simple: how do we get there?

Someone always plays the role of an organizer, but at the point in the organization’s life that you come to inescapable conclusion that you will have to build the capacity to sustain the work and create enough power to win, it takes leadership to get there. In the United Kingdom we are finding that we are overwhelmed with invitations to build new ACORN community organizations and ACORN Tenant Unions. We know they want – and need – staff, but we don’t have the resources.

We advise them to bring together ten or twenty people to begin the organizing. We send them a “starter” packet and support them on email, phone, and with occasional visits. Critically, as a dues-and-donation based organization, we give them a benchmark to reach. When they reach one-hundred dues paying members, we make them a formal local chapter or branch. As they reach one-hundred fifty, we help them hire an organizer part or fulltime depending on community support and commitments.

Sure, there are other ways to do this. You might get lucky and get a small grant to short cut the process, but, frankly, that’s a crapshoot, and many don’t score. Furthermore, grants come and mainly go, and then you are back to square one again. You might find an angel somewhere, but heaven knows that might even be harder. By creating a mechanism of support within the very community that is being organized whether neighborhood, workplace, or housing high rise, slowly but steadily the organization can get to a place that would be straightforward to sustain.

Not every emerging group will make it. Some will fall by the wayside finding the climb too steep and their step unsteady. But the ones that make it, have a chance of being able to not only fight successfully in the ongoing struggles, but also build the confidence and experience to scale up from that point forward. It’s not magic, but it is work, and it’s worth it.

Want to try? Call me maybe.

 

Columbus Free Press: Tips and Tools #6: Building an Organization? Why Not Dues?

By Wade Rathke in Columbus Free Press November 26th, 2018

In starting an organization, the first thought for many is, “Where do we get the money?” The answer doesn’t have to be that hard. Why not create a dues system? Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Why not have the people who are participating in the organization, many of whom will benefit from the work of the organization, “pay to play,” and have membership dues?

There is actual only one big obstacle: asking!

Many who desperately want to create an organization that would make change and build power are stymied by the cultural restraint that has been built around the simple problem that people are not comfortable talking about money. To be more specific, many are not as uncomfortable asking churches, unions, and of course charitable foundations for money as they are asking each other for money.

In building ACORN, we found that ironic. Most people don’t mind being asked for money, as much as others resist actually doing the asking.

There are more rationalizations that people offer for their hesitancy to ask people to put up their own money, than there are cracks in most neighborhood sidewalks. People are too poor. We have to win something first. No one has heard of the organization yet. And, so on.

ACORN has always been a constituency-based organization of low-and-moderate-income families. Paradoxically, most surveys indicate that lower income people are more philanthropic as a percentage of their income than are the rich. In truth, people have trouble believing that an organization is truly theirs and that they actually run the show, if they are not paying their share. If the dominant funding is external, from government or private sources, a wall of words will never fully convince lower income families that the organization is theirs, if someone or something else is paying the bills.

Certainly, money matters. It’s a scare commodity. There will be testing. They will make the organization do the work for the dues. They will remind the organization that they are paying their dues and those payments require accountability and establish entitlements. They will make the organization and its representatives, leaders, staff, and others continuously ask for the dues in order to prove that those precious dollars are as dear to the organization as they are to their family.

But, once the organization is willing to ask, people will pay. They understand the way the world works. They understand that nothing of value is really ever free. They understand that if they want to fight and win, there are costs.

Not every family will pay of course, but enough will. Not every family will pay the full amount, but almost all will pay something, or as much as they can, and many will do so regularly.

Besides asking, the other problem with a dues system is that it is hard consistent work. If an organization wins the foundation lottery sweepstakes and cashes in a grant for $10,000, there is no question that that is an easier lift, than creating a system where 1000 families pay $10 a month to make the same bank deposit.

The difference is that the foundation grant is a crapshoot. A system of regular dues payment, once created – and it is hard work – will yield that same $10,000 every month through bank drafts or direct deposits.

Furthermore, the organization will actually have 1000 real members, many of whom are as ready to act in concert with the organization, as they were to pay dues. With the foundation, all the organization may have is a friend in the program officer, until she gets another job next year and moves on.

The answer to the question, “Why not dues” may be that it is too hard to do the work, but it can never honestly be that people will not pay. They will, and they do.

Columbus Free Press: Tips and Tools #5: Building an Organization? Rain Follows the Plow

By Wade Rathke in Columbus Free Press September 22nd, 2018

In building an organization sustainability and self-sufficiency are essential, but money is not what drives the creation and survival of an organization. There is no amount of money that can substitute for a clear and solid organizing plan. In organizing, I always encouraged people not to worry about the money, but to first make the plan, focus fully on that, and totally believe that if the plan is good enough, then resources will follow. In expressing this principle at ACORN, I would always say, “rain follows the plow.” What in the world could that have meant? In the “manifest destiny” development of America and its drive to populate the vast lands from coast to coast, unscrupulous land promoters launched thousands of “prairie schooners” on the sea of the western plains by dangling before landless farmers the dream that “rain follows the plow.” In truth, the western states were environmentally a desert, rather than the anthem’s “fertile plains,” but the hucksters were arguing that famers could break the soil and that would trigger rain. In farming, we now all know better. But, in building any kind of organization, the organizing plan is in fact the plow that breaks the ground, and money will in fact “rain” to grow the organization, if the plan is sound and followed steadfastly. I realize that what I’m advocating sounds more like magic than a dependable tool that will build an organization, but I totally believe – and this has been my experience for decades – that an organizing plan is the a priori that drives money to support organization building. This is especially true if the organization is about social change and building power. Money that comes separate from a plan is merely transactional and though it may open some doors and allow some doors to stay open, if such resources are independent of the fundamental organizing plan, they will distract the organization, and are as likely to kill it, as grow it.An organizing plan is not a mission statement. A mission statement is frequently just a carefully crafted group of words, more often as not to attempt to satisfy a funder. An organizing plan is something that can be explained and shared. Such a plan is clear and concrete, and can then create the enthusiasm and support that will trigger deep and lasting commitments. An organizing plan demands commitments, hell or high water, for years from people to make it real. The kind of commitments that led families to pack up everything they owned and head for the unknown in Oregon or California, risking their lives, and building new lives, albeit displacing native people. An organizing plan articulates the broad steps and objectives to achieve an important future. A plan doesn’t need a story, it tells its own story. An organizing plan is something that is bigger than any of us, while encompassing all of us. For ACORN in the mid-1970s, building organization in twenty states by 1980, the 20/80 campaign, was such a plan. The critical component was the commitment of members, leaders, and organizers to implement the plan in the now sadly archaic statement “by any means necessary.” Certainly, it would cost money, but the ways and means of the finances was a presumption, an afterthought, or a collateral result, not an inspiration or a first order of business If the plan was good, the commitments were strong, and the goals were right, the money would come, somehow, sooner or later. There’s no “quit” in making an essential organizing plan to build an organization. There can’t be “ifs, ands, or buts.” There has to be enough drive that there is no such thing as obstacles that will stand in the way. The assumption has to be that success is inevitable, even if unpredictable and impossible to fix on a specific timetable or assign on the calendar. When organizers say, we will do such and such, “if we can raise the money,” what they are really saying is that they are not sure that the such and such is important enough to the organization or to themselves to assure that it will in fact be done. Such an organization may not be worth your time and trouble. The promoters may be trying to convince you that there’s rain in the desert, but if money is what the organization depends on for its growth and success, then the plan isn’t strong enough to realize an independent and powerful future.

Columbus Free Press: Tips & Tools #4: Building an Organization? Sustainability Matters

by Wade Rathke  in Columbus Free Press August 16th, 2018

An issue might be burning through the community. Friends and colleagues might always be talking about a nagging issue. A problem or grievance that might have seemed personal turns out to be shared by many who want a vehicle to demand justice and win change. Whatever triggers the drive to build an organization dedicated to building power and achieving change, if is worth doing, it is important to keep alive, and that means that sustainability always matters.

Sustainability in organizing is a euphemism for self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency requires organizational control of financing.

There are two sources of organizational funding. One is external funding and the other is internal financing. Sustainability privileges either source if it is driven and determined by the organization itself.

External funding from government or foundation grants is never sustainable, because by definition such funding is always outside of the control of the organization. It comes and it goes based on decisions and criteria outside of the control of the organization. There are strings attached. There are “deliverables.” There are rules and regulations. Worse, external funding for social change organizations has become increasingly transactional, rather than transformative. There is almost invariably a quid pro quo, something wanted and required to receive the money. General support has become exceedingly rare in modern external fundraising.

That doesn’t mean that an organization should never except external funding, but it should be received only as a means to an end, and the end must include sustainability. External funding has to be the organizational equivalent of venture capital, allowing the organization to do things it might otherwise have been unable to do. The caveat requires that a plan to build permanent capacity and replicable resources has to be imbedded in the implementation of any external grant. If not, external funding can sidetrack an organization and be the classic gift horse where the organization should have done a closer inspection of the teeth.

Worse, an organization should never make decisions about hiring, staff compensation, or rental space based on the receipt of outside funding, because by definition anything that is not internally replicable is not sustainable.

Internal financing runs the gamut from membership dues, sustainer contributions, pancake breakfasts, fish dinners, annual banquets, rummage sales, and a thousand other projects along with the sweat equity of the members, organizers, and leaders. These events are all within the capacity of the participants in the organization and directly involve the potential beneficiaries and constituency of the organization.

An organization also controls its own ability to go to the general public for support. Technically, they are external to the organization, but replicable and sustainable. Seeking donors, running pledge drives, canvassing in public locations or other neighborhoods, tagging on street corners, all involve asking for and receiving public support.

A disciplined schedule of internal fundraising can raise significant organizational resources. Once routinized and regularly repeated, sustainability becomes a foundational principle.

Practicing that principle assures an organization’s survival and that alone should be enough to prove that sustainability always matters.

 

Columbus Free Press: Tips & Tools #3: Building an Organization? The Beginnings Prejudice the Ends

Columbus Free Press Article

By Wade Rathke  July 11th, 2018

Let’s be honest.

There are many reasons that people decide to build an organization. Anger is one. A rage at injustice or an action by the government coupled with a recognition that your one voice, even yelling, will neither be heard nor will it create change, is often enough. Sometimes it is a mutual agreement between friends or like-minded individuals to all stand together and dive into the deep end of the pool and see if an issue can be attacked, a campaign created, or maybe an organization formed. Sometimes it is neighbors or fellow workers aggravated about a persistent issue or grievance that forces collective action. Sometimes it starts, as it usually did with ACORN, with someone knocking on your door. There can be all manner of triggers that begin organizations and without care, there can be as many that stunt its development or suffocate its future from birth.

Issues, grievances, inequities, and injustices are all reasons to build campaigns, but for an organization to live and win it has to have structure. It is important to be humble to the task, even while hopeful of the future.

Organizational structure needs to be organic, meaning it needs to allow and encourage natural growth. It needs to be flexible, because there is no way to predict the future. For organization builders, this means not suffering from “premature certainty.” It is important to leave windows and doors open, so the organization can breathe.

In the favelas of Brazil and throughout Latin America, any visitor can see several feet of rebar sticking through the roof of homes in lower income areas. Families think ahead to the possibility of adding another room or an additional floor, if and when, they have the money or the need. Everyone one knows they would not want to tear up the house in order to expand it.

The same thing is true of organizational structure. If an organization begins organizing tenants, it is hard to then also organize homeowners, unless the structure is flexible and organic enough to allow and encourage that. The same for united workers and welfare recipients, yet all may have mutual interests and be stronger together in one organization.  The labor movement is a perfect example as they have endured name changes and often with difficulty become general worker unions even though they are called teamsters or carpenters.  Without care and foresight, the beginnings prejudice the ends.

The same problem can arise around other organizational issues like membership versus non-membership, political versus nonpolitical, democratic elections versus appointments, and so forth. Organizations can change, but it is very, very difficult, and often they die trying or are replaced by other formations that can evolve and adapt to grow and change more easily. This is not fate or happenstance, but the result of decisions with painful costs because beginnings prejudice ends.